Sometimes Christmas gifts aren’t found under a tree. Occasionally they come far from home, free of the traditional trimmings.
That’s how Christmas 2013 arrived for Eli Sloneker … a few days early and with a gift that was only partially his.
He’s not complaining.
The former University High School football standout is reveling in an NCAA Division III national championship earned Friday in Salem, Va.
Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 52-14 victory over Mount Union gave the Warhawks their fifth title overall and fourth in five years. For Sloneker, a sophomore offensive lineman, it was the first.
“It was a crazy night … something I’ve never felt before,” said Sloneker, who started 12 games and played in all 15 at left guard for unbeaten Whitewater. “Everything seemed to be clicking that night. Our defense played great, as they have all year. Our offense kept making plays. It was fun to see.”
A year earlier, Sloneker played only sparingly in three or four games. His team did the unthinkable, missing the playoffs with a 7-3 record.
Whitewater had won three straight championships prior to that. So when preseason camp rolled around in August, there was motivation.
“In the past 10 years it (a national title) has become the expectation,” Sloneker said. “We came in pretty determined to show everyone we’re still a powerhouse. It’s good to get back on top.”
Whitewater got there with an offensive line that had no seniors and one junior. Sloneker earned his way onto the field in part because of his work in the weight room.
A 6-foot-3, 250-pounder as a U High senior, he has grown an inch and added 15 pounds of muscle at Whitewater.
Now back home in Danvers, he will take this week off for Christmas. Then, he’ll begin preparations for next year.
Competition for playing time will be fierce. Doing nothing is not an option.
“I’ll just work hard and focus on being a full-time starter again,” Sloneker said. “I’m pretty excited. After experiencing that (title) … it’s a great feeling. I’m trying to strive for that every year now.”
Sloneker is among two U High grads at Whitewater. Fellow sophomore Jim Solberg, a defensive back, played for the Warhawks as a freshman but sat out this year.
Solberg was “grayshirted, which is like being redshirted,” Sloneker said. “He was still in the program. I expect he will be back (playing) next year.”
At U High, Sloneker and Solberg were All-Area picks after helping win the 2011 Corn Belt Conference championship, two years after going 1-8.
They were in a senior class that laid the groundwork for the back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons and Corn Belt titles that have followed.
“All of the experiences I had at U High were great,” Sloneker said. “That’s why I wanted to continue playing at the next level. That transitioned well into the college years. It’s nice to keep the successful years going.”
Sloneker’s success is not limited to football. Majoring in biology, he made the Dean’s List both semesters last year and expects to again this semester.
Meanwhile, he has continued to earn medals in national rifle shooting competition, finishing in the top 20 in a two-man event this past summer at Camp Perry, Ohio. Four days later he reported to Whitewater for practice.
“It was a quick transition,” he said.
Friday, the payoff was planting a kiss on the national championship trophy.
Christmas was a few days early. And never better.
Randy Kindred is at email@example.com. The Kindred Blog: www.pantagraph.com/blogs